57th Street

Somewhere between the old regime and the revolution

Pulitzer committee makes at least one good call

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Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer for fiction. Despite a mediocre array of winners in the other categories this one definitely deserved it.

Written by Daniel

April 11, 2008 at 6:08 am

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The Vietnamese are an exception to everything

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There’s an episode of The West Wing that aired right after September 11. It’s a special standalone episode about terrorism in which the idol for fifteen year old debaters (Rob Lowe) says that terrorism has a 100% failure rate.
This statement, meant to comfort Americans after the tragedy of 9/11 seems false to me. Now, before I go on let me just plainly say that I in no way endorse terrorism, but I think the West Wing argument has considerable holes. It depends on what qualifies as terrorism. In terms of 9/11 I would count that as a failure because —as defined in the West Wing— those attacks were meant to be the beginning of the destruction of the United States of America.
That didn’t happen. If anything Iraq is more likely to be dismantled —but who knows how that war is going to turn out really.
What about Vietnam? William J. Duiker in his book Sacred War writes how during the Tet Offensive, the Northern Vietnamese killed civilians:

In Saigon, Viet Cong sapper units attacked civilians and military installations and occupied radio stations. In the most publicized incident, one suicide squad attacked and briefly occupied the ground floor of the new U.S. Embassy, located only a few hundred yards from the presidential palace in downtown Saigon.

In the end, the Tet Offensive was regarded as a failure by the Vietnamese Communists but their larger goal of repelling the United States, establishing a single, self-ruled, Communist country was achieved. Actually, even though the Tet Offensive was regarded by the Northern Vietnamese as a loss, it was extremely difficult for the Johnson administration to convince the public that the Tet Offensive was a failure for the Communists and a win for them. So, although the National Liberation Front (the Vietnamese Communists) weren’t walking that road to achieve their goals, the victory was along that line.
My Graduate School Instructor (think TA) for my Vietnam War class notes, though, that the Vietnamese were fighting in a “civil war context.” Modern day terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda are not the same. Those groups, like the PLO and IRA, are “making a claim to political legitimacy and rejecting another’s in some contexts; al-Qaeda is doing something else entirely.” So maybe the comparison isn’t applicable.

Written by Daniel

April 6, 2008 at 8:39 am

Posted in History

Fuck you Horace Greeley!

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The famous newspaper editor and politician Horace Greeley once called for the American people to “Go West!” I have a few thoughts on that.
Perhaps a cryptic message from the gods above, I’ve simultaneously found a new favorite columnist/correspondent and also discovered a contempt for the West. They’re connected. First meet Timothy Egan, Northwest Pacific Correspondent for The New York Times and casual op-ed columnist, and author of the Times‘ Outposts blog. He writes exactly the kind of journalism that I want to write. Although he currently counts himself as one of the millions of pundits sharing his two cents on the 2008 Presidential election, he also explores the Northwest and West. When we have a new president he says he’ll focus less on national politics. Many of his pieces consider the history of western cities and locations, like this one recognizing St. Patrick’s Day:

For a time, Gaelic was the common language in the mining warrens beneath Butte, Mont., and by the dawn of the 20th century the city had a higher percentage of Irish than any other in America – including Boston.Butte was a hard-edged, dirty, dangerous town on the crest of the Continental Divide, and if a single man lived to his 30th birthday he was considered lucky. Yet entire parishes left the emerald desperation of County Cork for the copper mines of Butte, fleeing a land where British occupiers had once refused to let mothers educate their children, and where famine had killed a million people in seven years’ time.

That alone strikes my history fancy, and there’s more! He loves reading and will take down anybody who says that medium is dying, even if it’s the technological visionary Steve Jobs:

Asked about Kindle, the electronic book reader from Amazon.com, Jobs was dismissive. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is,” he told John Markoff of The Times, “the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”This is nonsense on several levels. But before we get to reading, let’s stipulate that Jobs is deserving of his 2007 ranking by Fortune Magazine as the most powerful person in business. Anyone who can cause revolutions in five industries, as Fortune noted, is a titan — capable of touching a billion lives.

My hero. As Northwest Pacific Correspondent, he lives in Seattle and speaks reverently for the city and the rest of the region. Egan is a skilled journalist and because his passion is so great, it spills over into a readers’ interest. Reading his writing and hearing him speak (note, you have to skip to the second half of the podcast of the previous link to hear him) makes me want to learn more about the West.
But then I read Leigh Novak’s entertaining piece on The Beachwood Reporter about her move from her Chicago homeland to Seattle. Hilarity and perhaps fewer kind words about Seattle follow.

Because by the time the train passes through the downtown streets, it is 5 minutes to 6, and I get to the parking spots only to wait for Dipshits A through E to figure out how to back their cars into slots at at passable interpretations of perpendicular angles (they are artsy here – nothing is logical). Then my walk is that much longer, and there are that many more slow-walking Seattleans that I need to breeze by on the sidewalk because, in the city from where I come, people know how to pick up their feet. It’s a survival skill. Seattleans would be stampeded if they approached Chicago with the same head-up-my-ass assertiveness to foot transportation.

Seattle is about as edgy and diverse as a Death Cab For Cutie concert in Naperville. Most people have an image that they are striving to perfect – that Seattle cool.

Not too long ago (like a week) at the very mention of Seattle I’d almost mechanically chirp that it was the Chicago of the West. Now I’m not so sure.

Written by Daniel

April 4, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Persepolis On Screen

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persepolis.jpgLet me first say that this not a comparison of Persepolis, the books, and Persepolis the film. That comes later, once somebody hires me and starts paying me enough money to afford the books.

In our most recent, and to date only, live meeting of the contributors to 57th Street, I had the opportunity to talk to Ben about the film Persepolis. While both of us agreed that it was an excellent film, and brilliantly animated, he voiced something like displeasure about the film’s central “coming of age story.” For him, it didn’t seem like anything new. And that’s got me thinking: what about this film made it seem so different? What was it that really captivated me when I was in theatres?

To be clear: the film is charming, and beautifully animated. If I had wanted to talk about how great it looks, and how you should go see it, I would have published this weeks ago. Instead, I want to take a moment to figure out why it affected me.

First off, Marjane, the protagonist, is completely likable. It’s rare in film, at least in my experience, for a character to completely outshine the plot and really own the movie. Also, Marjane spends most of the movie as a very young girl. Typically, “coming of age” movies use childhood as a backdrop and do not dwell on it for any length of time. Instead, Marjane’s childhood is central the story as it establishes not only the core of her character — imaginative, free-spirited, and fiery — but also key events in the film, namely the Iranian Revolution.

Aside from Marjane, the setting and scope of the film was something truly refreshing for these American eyes. As one who grew up hearing about the strife in the middle east, I have only recently taken the time to investigate the countries so often talked about in the news. With this upbringing, it is unfortunately hard to not think of the middle east without first thinking of Kalashnikovs, sand, religious extremism, backward-ness, and violence. This is very ignorant thinking, I know. But it can hardly be helped with how the region as a whole is portrayed in the news. Which is why seeing a portrait of Iran featuring people who look and act and live just like me was so refreshing. I have to admit that I didn’t ever think that there would be high-rises in Tehran. It may not be enough to justify loving a movie, but a unique perspective goes a long way.

What I think I enjoyed most about the film was the sense of freedom that I felt at the end of the film. Marjane showed her life as tumultuous and ever changing. It ends bittersweet, and incomplete — truer to life than most movies are willing to admit. It would have been so easy to just end the film with her struggles behind her. But that’s not how life works. Marjane experiences so much through the course of the film. She is a child, an expatriate, a smoker, a partier, an intellectual, a rebel, a wife. In a time of my life when it seems like I might spend the rest of my breathing days with one career doing one task over and over again, the reminder that humans are infinitely capable brings so much hope and stands out in full color in a black and white world.

Written by Little Max

April 1, 2008 at 2:18 am

Blaaah

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I have no motivation to post anything. My brain is fried and I really have been trying to get our staff writers here to write something, obviously to no avail. Anyway, check out an online news and culture magazine that I write for! The Beachwood Reporter. It’s Chicago based! I love it. It may seem a little strange at first but it’s really cool.

Written by Daniel

March 27, 2008 at 3:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Newsflash (not)! the news industry needs money

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Once upon a time, rich people used to give back to the public. A lot. There once was a noble breed of the wealthy that believed in a role of the elite as servants of society, using money to improve the world, even when there was no clear profit in the investment. It was the gratification that mattered.

Not all of this was selflessness. The donors got to one up their fellow richie riches and also often got their name stamped on something big (the Shedd Aquarium, Marshall Field’s, Pritzker School of Medicine). But over all it was a win win. The City of Chicago was practically built on philanthropy.

Sometimes the wealthy bought newspapers because of the potential for profit and back in the day newspapers and journalism in general was indeed profitable. Four wealthy families were regarded as the stewards of quality journalism: the Chandlers of The Los Angeles Times, the Sulzbergers of The New York Times, the Grahams of The Washington Post, and the Bancrofts of The Wall Street Journal. Today there are half as many Stewards —the Sulzbergers and the Grahams and there are early hints of another halving possibly. But there’s still hope.

Herb and Marion Sandler are backing an audacious media venture called Pro Publica. According to an article in The New York Times Magazine,

the venture would employ around 25 reporters and editors and would conduct the kind of ambitious investigations that only a handful of the country’s most prominent news organizations do as a matter of course.

The Sandlers are the old style kind of wealthy. According to the article,

they want their money to go to organizations they feel are well run and led by people they can count on to keep them that way.

It’s the most pure kind of philanthropy.

What the Sandlers want, clearly, is investigative journalism that leads to change in public policy or finds, as Herb put it to me, “the next Enron.”

What’s replaces this era of admirable returns to the public are a tiny group of media owners hungry for more money. Today Samuel Zell, Rupert Murdoch, and James L. Dolan are descending on the Long Island paper Newsday. I think the very name Newsday hints at the aspirations of what it could become: a quality tabloid serving an area larger than just Long Island. For a while in the 80s and 90s, the paper was going that way. It had an undeniably excellent New York edition. Since then the paper has fallen a bit in quality but it’s still respectable. I don’t know who will take it but it can’t be good. The bidder with the best record is Rupert Murdoch who hasn’t lowered the quality of The Wall Street Journal “yet” as an editor told me recently. I think all of them are more likely to do something bad to the paper. The New York Times article on the Newsday sale said

The News and The Post are fierce competitors for readers and advertisers in New York City, and the pursuit of Newsday could become a high-stakes battle between Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Murdoch. Thus, the jockeying for control of Newsday could decide the fates of three of the nation’s largest newspapers, and dominance in Long Island, with nearly three million people.

Basically making Newsday into the usual kind of tabloid: full of yellow journalism and sensational gossipyness. It’s the kind of journalism that really hurts everything. Here’s what a lot of people don’t understand about the media. People like me aren’t fogeys who don’t like change —well I am that but not in this respect; rather, we understand that the information chosen for certain platforms really does impact people. Think about it. How much of your political stance is fueled by the information you get in news outlets be it tv, radio, online, or print? Now consider that some of these news outlets feel your political view should consider that Barack Obama’s middle name is Hussein making him unfit to be president which has nothing to do with any indication of what kind of Commander-in-Chief he would be. It’s all out there.

The goal of many successful and some not so successful media outlets has been turning a profit. None of it is really educational or informative. But informativeness is more important than ever right now. In Michael Miner’s Hot Type column this week he interviews Richard Longworth, author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. Longworth, a journalist himself, attributes the economic problems in the Midwest partially to a general ignorance by the public thanks to the decline in quality informativeness and relevance of newspapers. Longworth says that

Newspapers are failing” at their task, Longworth writes, and one reason is a report issued by the “once responsible journalism school at Northwestern University, urging papers to draw readers by stressing local news. . . . All over the Midwest, local news, no matter how trivial, is squeezing out the global coverage that readers need to make sense of their world.

“Increasingly,” Longworth told me, “decision-makers get their news from elite sources and too many voters don’t get any news at all.”

Longworth goes on to explain that Midwesterners need to understand the world globally and how that is relevent to them if they are to survive in an age of outsourcing. He proposes for Chicago a new kind of newspaper that would also serve the Midwest.

So in Caught in the Middle, Longworth makes a proposal: “If the Midwest is to act as a region, it needs a trusted publication to set the regional agenda.”

The Tribune could launch a Midwestern newspaper, a sort of regional [Financial Times] that covers both the Midwest and the globe with true quality journalism, and would work hard to link the Midwest to the globe. It would be smaller in size, with considerably higher newsstand and subscription prices, less reliant on advertising, devoid of the kind of Dear Abby features that bring in readers now. . . . This would be an elite paper, sure. But it would inject global knowledge into a region that desperately needs it. And who knows, it might be read by local editors and reporters who could be inspired to do some of the same sort of reporting on their own back yards.

But right now there’s the Chicago Sun-Times and the Tribune which don’t really serve this purpose. The Sun-Times, like Newsday to a more extreme degree, has fallen from its past accolades of greatness. At this point, that may not be such a bad thing. Time to end it. A BusinessWeek article remembers the days when the family of Marshall Field III was at the helm, the Sun-Times flourished.

Under the Fields, the paper spent freely to give readers a lively, liberal, and hard-hitting alternative to the stodgy, Republican Trib. In 1977, for instance, the Sun-Times shelled out enough money to open its own tavern—the cheekily named Mirage—for four months so its undercover reporters could snare city officials seeking bribes. The home of columnists Mike Royko and Eppie Lederer, aka Ann Landers, the Sun-Times was “a very serious newspaper,” recalls former managing editor Gregory E. Favre, now a fellow at the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism school.

So as tabloids vie for dominance in giving us the latest gossip, and as the Sun-Times dies out, there’s really just one proper reaction to this.

Oh Marshall where art thou?

Written by Daniel

March 21, 2008 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Journalism

Yet another ramble on how important William F. Buckley was?

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It seems like every publication is putting ample space aside to commemorate the death of William F. Buckley, the founder of the magazine National Review and a widely respected conservative. So I figured we at 57th Street might as well do the same.

Nobody here knew Buckley personally. We didn’t go to school with him. We weren’t friends with his parents. We didn’t write a mocking column about him which eventually got us a job. He was never our editor. Hell, I had no idea who he was until he died and both liberal and conservative media outlets wrote obituaries on him. I don’t think my ignorance is unique. The closest link I have to him is that JadedHack/Ben goes to the University of Chicago where Buckley spent his undergraduate years. I’ve also lived in Chicago for a number of years, within spitting distance of the U of C campus and never heard about Buckley. So I’m still trying to figure out what the world has lost. From what I’ve ascertained so far, the loss isn’t small.

Yesterday night, while reporting on a Michigan Student Assembly meeting for The Michigan Daily I picked up a copy of the National Review lying around. Lately I’ve been in search of new reading material to accompany The New York Times, The New Yorker, a number of blogs (some of which are from the previously mentioned newspaper and magazine) and sometimes the Chicago Reader. So I was open to the Review, especially because of a certain imbalance of political bend toward liberalism among my periodicals. I flipped through it and admit, it wasn’t bad. The issue was of course a commemoration to its founder, Buckley, and I really didn’t feel like reading too much on him. Still, I was somewhat impressed by the magazine. Nice column lengths, nice writing style, nice design. I say somewhat because it probably won’t make my list of regular reads. Earlier today (or yesterday because it’s almost 2 a.m.) I was checking out The New Republic‘s site when I saw a little something from its editor, Franklin Foer. Foer is one of the three Foer writers, a rare family of extraordinary journalists and authors. I haven’t read his brother —Johnathan Safran Foer—’s book Everything Is Illuminated but I’m going to. So I figured my increasing stack of school work could bare another 20 minutes of inattention and read Foer’s piece. Guess what it was on? That’s right, Buckley. But like this blog post, it wasn’t a reminiscence of that time Foer and Buckley were at the old boy’s club smoking cigars and doing…whatever. It started out with a problem Foer has at TNR: the abbreviations are the same as the National Review‘s.

I, for one, have never gone out of my way to compound this misapprehension by posing as a writer for the National Review. But I haven’t always disabused the impression that I work for the other TNR, either. It can be a great boon while reporting. When interviewing the grassroots of the conservative moment at, say, a Christian Coalition Road to Victory conference or a gathering of the College Republicans, I’ve found myself occasionally swept into the sweet embrace of comradeship. “Oh, what’s David Frum really like?” When I reply that I consider him to be a gentleman, the filters that might normally preclude honest conversation with representatives of the mainstream media are lifted.

Also unique to the many pieces of Buckley, Foer reveals that

The rap on Buckley’s magazine was that it served as a self-promotional vehicle on the road to television, a quixotic mayoral bid, and the creation of a persona, or, to put it less charitably, a personality cult.

I agree with Foer. It’s a fair magazine. It doesn’t quite suit my palette but I wouldn’t openly scoff at the idea of my friends reading it —actually I’d probably adore them because a subscription to the National Review is very anti-establishment at Michigan. I also empathize with Foer, the name thing is always an issue. I have to admit, I’m still a little unsure about part of 57th Street’s name. If we just shortened it to 57th Street as it’s bound to be called, it might get confused with the bookstore or the actual street. But what should go instead of ‘Company’? Should it stay ‘The 57th Street Company’? What’s in a name? The last thing anyone really needs is yet another name change because of me.

It turns out that back in the day, The New Republic and The Nation magazine had so much in common that the prospect of a merger was given some serious thought. Foer writes

During the early ’50s, The Nation and The New Republic seriously considered merging, there was so little space between them. The new magazine would have been ponderously and unpromisingly called The Nation and New Republic.

The idea was eventually tabled of course and TNR remained TNR sharing much with The Nation but also something significant with a deeply conservative magazine called the National Review.

I guess the outcome of my little exploration of the Review resulted in an admiration for The New Republic. I’m very impressed with Foer’s column and I’ve seen the magazine on friends’ desks lately. So Buckley’s death has affected me too. Because of him, I now have an growing interest in The New Republic. I hadn’t touched it before actually, because the movie Shattered Glass will forever stay associated to the magazine in my mind. That movie is about Stephen Glass, a journalist who fabricated stories while working at The New Republic. I can overlook that though. After all, raging liberals overlooked the wide expanse in political outlook when commemorating Buckley.

Written by Daniel

March 20, 2008 at 6:25 am